By all accounts, the suppertime vibe in Gabriel Rucker’s Le Pigeon restaurant is upbeat and friendly. Due in part to the restaurant’s small footprint and open kitchen, diners are right in the middle of everything that’s going on, naturally fostering a communal feel. “I’m a friendly guy,” says Rucker by way of explaining the good energy, “and I’m right back there, cooking you dinner.”
A copy of The Pigeon Loves Things That Go! rests between rows of wine bottles and mason jars of housemade preserves on cubby-like shelves at the far end of the restaurant. A plush version of Mo Willems’ charmingly egomaniacal pigeon character, star of his award-winning series of picture books, is nearby. I bought the very same toy for my one-year-old godson last week, so I happen to know that when the pigeon is squeezed it cries out emphatically, “Let me drive the bus!” On the other side of the restaurant’s small, open kitchen hangs an award from Food and Wine magazine—2007 Best New Chef. Amid mismatched chairs, large communal tables, and modest but classy bistro decor, none of these things—the wide-eyed blue pigeon doll or mason jars of preserved lemons, the paper valentine with a chainsaw drawn on it, or the chef himself with his hot pink iPhone—seem particularly out of place.
Rucker hadn’t spent much time in professional kitchens when he followed a guidance counselor’s recommendation to take a career training course and, as young people are disposed to do, let his finger drop over the pages of the course catalog, where it serendipitously landed on a cooking class.
Soon after, Rucker moved to Portland, sight unseen, with two friends from his hometown of Napa, California. “I wanted to move to San Francisco but I couldn’t afford it,” he remembers of the decision to move North. “And my friends said Portland was cool.” Lucky for us; and fortuitous for Rucker. At 25, Gabriel, who had been working at Paley’s Place, Nostrana, and Gotham Building Tavern, was offered the challenge of taking over what was then Colleen’s Bistro on lower East Burnside. He was given just two months to straighten out the struggling restaurant, re-christened Le Pigeon. It was an ideal environment for his French-inspired cuisine, Gabriel says of launching Le Pigeon in his charge. “It just felt right—people sitting here, eating pigs’ feet.” In only a few months the critics noticed how right it was, too, and then Le Pigeon really took off.
While Rucker is known for putting some of the animal kingdom’s less-glamorous cuts his menu, he insists there’s no secret plan to get Portlanders eating more heart, liver, or tripe. “I just cook the food I want to cook,” he explains when pressed about his philosophy as a successful chef. “If it’s something that I would want to eat, then I get excited about it and I put it on the menu.”
Gabriel credits his maturity as a chef for his considered approach to the work. Rather than trying to craft a “show stopper” dish, busy with overwhelming flavors, the chef says he’d rather let the food speak for itself, so he tries to simplify an idea instead of allowing it to become overworked and cluttered. The difference may be subtle, but that’s what the dishes at Le Pigeon are about. Rucker likes to center on one flavor, layering it throughout the plate. Doing so, he says, creates a real depth in his cooking, something that’s new since opening Le Pigeon.
Rucker crafts dishes that are at once careful and playful, such as the pigeon chowder he has in mind for later in the week. It’s a whole roasted squab stuffed with a creamy chowder studded with duck bacon, roasted potatoes, and corn. When the diner cuts into it, the chowder runs over the meat and sauces it. The dish sounds delicious—and mad enough to be brilliant. When I am back at home, I count the contents of my change jar, dreaming of dinner at his restaurant.
Despite his youth and his lighthearted creations, it’s easy to see that Rucker is a pragmatist, and his honesty is flattering. He uses in-season, local, and organic produce when it’s sensible to do so, and doesn’t sweat it otherwise. “I am a chef and my job is to make delicious food,” he tells me squarely, as if my questions asked in the hope of uncovering some revelatory philosophy are a little naïve. As if I had forgotten that when the food is good—as good as it is at Le Pigeon—the rest can feel superfluous.
Clearly, he’s got the right attitude. Food and Wine called him a “wunderkind” when they endorsed him in 2007. Earlier this year he was nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef of the Year Award.
The recent nomination has singled Rucker out as a promising young chef, one likely to have a significant impact on the industry in the years to come, and I want to know how he expects he’ll steer the culinary ship, so to speak. He looks to the upper left corner of the ceiling behind my head and takes a long pull on his milky coffee before answering. His reply, I believe, is emblematic of his outlook: “Hopefully there’s not just one ship.” Touché. His answer is refreshing, though not surprising. Equally important are his cravings for the four-dollar burritos at Tacos Moreno in Santa Cruz and for the fare at Bistro Jeanty. The latter is in Yountville, near Napa, a homey French bistro and one of Rucker’s favorites that provided a lot of inspiration for Le Pigeon.
By now, however, Le Pigeon is its own place and Gabriel Rucker, his own chef, surrounded by neat rows of preserves, pigeon dolls, and hungry diners, eager to get a taste of his favorite foods.
“If it looks good, tastes good, eat it,” he shrugs as he delivers a summation of his career, “and hopefully I made it for you.”
Le Pigeon 738 E Burnside St lepigeon.com